[KEARNEY, NEBRASKA] — When you first get to the river, it’s 6am and pitch black. You feel your way down a path, heading toward The Noise. You want to get there before they see you coming. Slowly, the shrieks get louder and louder as the first light slowly begins to open its eyes. Suddenly, you start to make out shapes stepping out of the darkness. Big dark masses grow more detailed the lighter it gets. What you thought was an island or sandbar is actually a throbbing, humming mass of birddom. And they suddenly appear out of the darkness, like the invasion of Normandy on DDay. Hundreds of thousands of them, nearly covering the shallow river from shore to shore.
We wait while the first pilot flocks start to take to the sky. 10-20-30 at a time. The rest remained shivering their wings in the water. When are they leaving? You don’t want to blink in fear of missing something. We were straddled along a bridge across the shallow Platte with others. But as it grew lighter, we noticed power lines across the street, between us and the birds. We delicately crossed the street and down into a ravine, prime grandstand seats without obstructions. No we had a strait shot. And that’s when it happened. For no noticeable reason, they all started taking off at once. The shrieks turned to a deafening roar. Hundreds of thousands of giant prehistoric cranes all doing the same thing at once. Everyone stopped breathing, mouths agape. The sky was swimming with birds, wings flapping to catch the wind. It was primordial. Never have seen anything like it before.
PICTURES DO NOT DO THIS PHENOMENON JUSTICE. YOU GOTTA HEAR IT AND REALLY SEE IT HERE:
HERE’S A LOOK AT A SUNRISE LAUNCHING:
We were here in the middle of Nebraska, just outside Kearney, along the the shores of the shallow and meandering Platter River. Water from Colorado and North Dakota, now here to feed the fields…and these damn old birds. We were here to watch one of the last Great Migrations on the planet. The Sandhill Cranes. Each and every spring, as has happened since the Platte was formed 10,000 years ago, sandhill cranes stop here at the halfway point of their 10,000 mile return journey from Mexico to Alaska. Here in the safety of this shallow stream, here in the bounty of the fallowed fields. Everything ready to pop for Spring. Over 500,000 cranes come here, 80% or the sandhill crane population on the planet. All right here. At the same time.
A SUNSET LANDING:
We kinda winged this trip at the last minute. A followup to our lighting of the Kansas Flint Hills a year before. We drove from Denver on a Saturday morning, arriving in Kearney just in time to check out the sunset landing of the cranes. As they have for thousands of years, the cranes spend their days gorging in the surrounding fields, picking at the chaff and loading up in fat before the last leg of their journey north. But right after sunset, actually right it turns dark, out of every corner of the sky they come. Wave after crooked wave of shrieking, honking cranes. The waves get more frequent, more intense and louder as they mass. The sky is busy in every direction. They taunt us, landing in nearby fields before their final squat into the river right as it turns dark.
The next thing to see is the sunrise flight, where after Sleep Standing in the safety of the river, they all take off at once. There are lots of great resources online to find out more. Like this awesome Wall Street Journal article on the migration, in this perfect CBS Sunday Morning segment, here’s the Grand Island sandhill viewing site, and a great online brochure from the Kearney Visitor’s Bureau, and this Kearney site which has everything you need. One thing we wish we did was to visit the Rowe Audubon blinds that everyone refers to. There are only a couple dozen slots for viewing and they start booking up in early January, so put it on your calendar. I will mine. There you are right up close in the best, most intense section of the river. Here’s a live webcam, you can watch right before it gets dark in Nebraska, or before the sun rises.
Here’s a great map of the different public places to view the cranes. I marked the places that matched the photos and video above.
HERE’S A LIVJECAM FROM THE AUDUBON BLINDS. YOU WON’T SEE MUCH EXCEPT DURING MARCH AND EARLY APRIL, SUNRISE OR SUNSET. MOST OF THE BIRDS ARE OUT IN THE FIELDS DURING THE DAY. BUT HERE’S WHAT IT CAN LOOK LIKE AT 6:41 Mtn on 16 MAR 16:
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